Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Images at l(e)ast

The rice paddies, I think. I’ve been calling these rice paddies based on something my host brother said one of the first days we were at our homestay houses—which is probably not the most reliable information around. As we walked upon the “paddies” he pointed to the field and repeated, “Marro”, the Hassaniya word for rice, though I generally don’t have much of a reason to believe we’re communicating very well.

Rosso is the Senegal-Mauritania border town where we are doing pre-service training. It’s a large city for Mauritania, but it sure doesn’t look like much from about a half kilometer East of town! This shot is taken from more or less the same spot as the rice paddy photo above.

Probably one of the nicest sights I’ve seen in Rosso, there’s a small bridge over this branch of (or tributary to?) the Senegal River, a bit East of the city. I jogged out this way one of my first days in town and knew I had to come back to take some photos. On the way here, I was jogging and started to branch off the road, when a man calmly walks to meet me from his house. He had a rifle in his hand, which convinced me it was a good idea to slow down. I greeted him in Hassaniya and switched to French, not really wanting to make too many miscommunications. “What’s down this way?”

As if there was nothing awkward about the sizable firearm, “Nothing. Nothing’s here, just the river.”

“Can I jog down there?” I am jogging in place, which, it occurs to me, probably looks really awkward to a Mauritanian.

“Nothing’s here just the river. It’s pretty that way.” He waves down toward the big road I had been jogging on before.

“Okay then! I’ll go there, maa salaam!”

One trainee was joking, “people at home won’t get why I am sending them photos of water—they won’t realize how special water is in Mauritania.” I know this spot falls into that category of “hey, look, water!”, but I think it’s pretty scenic anyhow.

Passing over that little bridge on a walk with friends, we weren’t entirely sure that we were still in Mauritania. If it was a bridge over the Senegal, than we would, of course, *be* in Senegal. We stopped and ate some breakfast after finding a reassuring sign that boasted something like, “Irrigation Project of Mauritania”. Wanting to walk to the river and get some good photos in, we turned into the area and set on walking “for maybe another 30 minutes”.

We passed a large refugee camp on the way— the UN is working to repatriate many black Africans who were exiled to Senegal. Around 1989, after violence between Moors and Senegalese, lists of Senegalese (and those suspected of being sympathetic to Senegalese causes), were forced from the country. The process is still highly controversial here, and many of the exiled may have been living in Mauritania for generations. As a border town, there are UNHCR refugee camps all over Rosso as the new government works with the UN to improve the situation. On many days, there’s even a camp in front of the Peace Corps training center.

After passing the camp in the middle of the irrigation project, we walked a bit into the fields before seeing this herd of goats. A (somewhat hair-brained) idea popped into my head—“Hey, that shepherd will be taking those goats to the river to get something to drink, let’s just walk that direction and they’ll lead us to the river!”

After a kilometer or so, the road ended at an intersection perpendicular to the direction the goats were headed. Looking in every direction, all we could see was the land of the irrigation project.

All’s well that end’s well: when we probably should have turned around, we decided to walk out toward some kind of light house or minaret that we saw in the distance. We *did* reach a major branch / tributary of the river, but when we reached it, we couldn’t see over the marsh grass! We walked back toward Rosso, along the water, hoping to get a nice view. After a while, we did actually reach a spot with an open view—two of the branches of the river met in an area with no grass. We all whipped out our cameras, but mine refused to take any pictures—no more memory. I deleted a few photos, but the ones I took there weren’t quite as nice as the one of that scenic bridge above.

Once the high of the vista wore off, we realized that the meeting of the two branches effectively boxed us into the land of the irrigation project— three hours into our morning walk, we had to double back the way we came. Two of us were more or less out of water and the noon heat was starting to set in. As I walked, I realized that I had blisters on my feet where the straps of my Chacos were. Dehydrated, a headache, and in a bit of pain, we set back walking…

Walking diagonally across fields to save time, we came to the corner of one field that had a herd of bulls and cows with huge horns. Someone asked—“Should we cross this field?”

Nervous at the thought of being impaled in a stampede, I relented, “I don’t care, I just don’t want to go straight through all those cows.”

“Oh, it’s okay, I see a path!” We creep through the field in single file, dodging thorns and probably walking on an unbroken layer of dung-soil, not really looking at where we were going. The path, unfortunately, went straight through the herd. Slowly, with no quick movements, we slinked in between dozens and dozens of these huge beasts. Someone else admitted that they were completely afraid, which was somehow the most comforting thing for me to hear—that I wasn’t abnormally fearful.

We passed a Mauritanian cow-herder, who watched three educated Americans, probably 8 or 10 kilometers from the city, walk more or less on tip-toes through a field full of cows that he worked with every day. Though I have no idea what he thought of us, I’m glad he didn’t know how afraid we were of walking by a group of cows that were minding their own business, all eating grass.

Needless to say, we made it to the other side of the field, and I couldn’t help but take the obvious joke, “Damn, I could go for a burger right now.” We continued the slightly painful march back toward town, and as we neared the main road, probably still 5 or 6 kilometers from the city, a man stopped and gave us a ride in his pick up truck, even refusing to accept a few ougiyas for the favor.